BROOKLYN, N.Y. — A pickup truck pulls up in front of the venue where Dierks Bentley fans are queued up to see their hero play. Bentley’s music is blasting out of a truck cab, and the driver — a big, hardy-looking, gregarious guy with an undeniable (but purely coincidental) resemblance to Will Ferrell — yells out, “Who wants a beer?” to the folks in line and starts happily passing out cold cans of brew from a cooler, gratis.
In and of itself, it’s not an especially unusual scenario, except for the fact that this little preshow tailgate party is occurring on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, outside the 350-capacity club Southpaw.
So what’s a multiplatinum country star doing in this unexpected locale? Whatever he damn well pleases. Bentley’s Thursday (Oct. 21) stop in Brooklyn was the last of four consecutive nights in New York City that found him playing all over town with a wide array of co-conspirators. A straight-ahead concert at the Bowery Ballroom on the Lower East Side was followed by a bluegrass show at the City Winery in Soho with the Del McCoury Band. Next was a low-key “songwriters night” at Joe’s Pub in Greenwich Village, where Dierks shared the stage with songsmiths Jim Beavers, Jessie Alexander, and Jon Randall Stewart. Bentley closed out his NYC stint backed by progressive-bluegrass mavericks the Punch Brothers, led by former Nickel Creek frontman Chris Thile.
The Punch Brothers make their home in New York these days, and Bentley sought them as his backing band for some tracks on his bluegrass-inspired album, Up on the Ridge. The sessions took place in Brooklyn’s waterfront neighborhood of Red Hook, just a short hop from the Slope, so it’s a surprisingly appropriate spot for Bentley’s final night in town.
After a delayed start time that’s more small-rock-club than big-time-country-concert, Bentley and the five Punch Brothers hit the Southpaw stage, the former dressed down in jeans and flannel shirt and the band nattily attired in vintage-looking suits suggesting a ’30s gangster vibe. Backed by the all-acoustic band on guitar, upright bass, mandolin, banjo and fiddle, Bentley wastes little time before plunging into hard-driving versions of two classic country nuggets — Faron Young‘s “Goin’ Steady” and the old Jimmy Martin tune, “Hold What You Got.”
Bentley declares this trip “the longest I’ve been in New York,” adding, “I’ve actually unpacked my suitcase,” before delivering a Punched-up version of his 2005 hit “Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do,” with fiddler Gabe Witcher and banjo man Noam “Pickles” Pikelny putting in their two cents. It’s probably sometime after 10 p.m. when Bentley mentions that he and the band visited Live With Regis and Kelly at 6 a.m. that day to play his new single, “Draw Me a Map,” and then launches into the tune for the second time that day.
Another Up on the Ridge song, “Fallin’ for You,” flies high, fueled by the Punch Brothers’ angular, staccato riffs. The band gives Bentley’s No. 1, hit “Come a Little Closer,” a slow, lonesome feel, gradually building up to a fiddle-led, folkish frenzy not a million miles from the feel of “Sweet Thing,” from Van Morrison‘s Astral Weeks album.
The singer then gives the crowd his bluegrass back story, talking about how he moved to Nashville at 19 and fell in love with the music by hanging out at the Station Inn, a legendary bluegrass club. He then leads the band into the traditional tune, “Old Home Place.”
A woman hands a note and a drink up to Bentley, the message saying she’d seen him play at Madison Square Garden. He simply replies, “Being in a place where someone can actually hand me a drink and yell a request, this is more my speed.”
More Ridge songs follow — songs Bentley says he “knew it’d take these guys to get.” He and Thile trade vocals on Bob Dylan‘s “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power),” clinking cups afterwards for getting all the lyrics right. Referencing the bluegrass tradition’s penchant for murder ballads, Bentley observes, “We haven’t killed anybody yet. I think it’s gonna happen in this one,” and launches into a frenetic version of “Rovin’ Gambler.”
Everyone but Bentley and Thile leave the stage while the duo dig deep for a couple of old-school, high-lonesome tunes: “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” (“as lonesome as a song could possibly be,” according to Thile) and Bill Monroe‘s “Midnight on the Stormy Deep.” Then Bentley gives the stage over to the returning Punch Brothers for a three-song mini-set that has the crowd eating out of their hands.
After an extended, bluegrassy take on his first hit, “What Was I Thinkin’,” Bentley recalls his Red Hook recording session, where he stared out at the Statue of Liberty through the vocal booth window while cutting a down-home reworking of U2′s “Pride (In the Name of Love),” then proceeds to play the song live. Thile’s manic mandolin takes over for the Edge’s signature guitar riff and then some, and his high vocal on the chorus leads Bentley to inquire, “Is that natural, or did you have the bluegrass operation?”
The set proper ends with the band tearing through Lefty Frizzell‘s “She’s Gone Gone Gone” before Bentley and the band return with a quick teaser of his hit, “Sideways.” He then kicks off an eclectic, unpredictable batch of cover tunes with Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe.” Completely ad hoc, righteously ragged versions of George Strait‘s “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” and Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” follow, with Bentley telling Thile after the latter, “I think we should work that one up.”
The evening closes on a high note — literally — as a sassy take on Jimmie Rodgers‘ “Brakeman’s Blues” finds Thile holding a falsetto yodeling tone for what seems like a superhuman length of time. Moments later, the band is humbly taking its final bow en masse, arms entwined, but you can just imagine Bentley proudly musing to himself, “Set list? We don’t need no stinkin’ set list!”